“I love you”. The words are heard spoken nearly as often as that most endearing butchering of the English language “lol”. Perhaps the latter will begin to follow the former in conversations: ‘I love you’, ‘lol!’. (Ah, don’t get me started on that nonsense; the queen is already rolling over in her grave). But the words ‘I love you’, what do they mean? What is it to say those words to another person, and would knowing that make any difference in the lives of ordinary people? (I say ordinary, because only philosophers tend to worry about these matters and to most of the great unwashed we are not ordinary; but, how would they know?!).
It has been said that love is a feeling or that love is a verb (i.e. that love is the action one takes towards another). Both of these, it would seem, are both trivially true and non-trivially false. The first is trivially true in the sense that one first notices that they are in love through the onset of certain feelings. Indeed, as a good Aristotelian I am obliged to say that love without a certain amount of what Hume would call “fellow feeling”, i.e. compassion, towards the other is incomplete or imperfect. This is not to say that there is not love in such a situation but rather, like an oak tree that has lost its leaves due to the changing of the seasons, it is waiting in hope for a new spring. The tree remains yet is only a promise of its full potential. The second is also trivially true, and this can be understood when we consider that ‘love is an activity’ could actually mean nearly anything at all. If I play tennis with someone do I love them? What if I take them on a romantic date for the Chinese buffet? What if we have many years of such activities and have a home, a family, traditions and rituals? Such activity is indeed a sine qua non for a love relationship (for love is a relating term) and understood this way it is patently obvious that it is a verb.
But, what if I torture them for several years instead, locked in a cave? What if they cannot avoid seeing me at work and I habitually slap them in the face with malice aforethought? That is activity as well, although it is perverted. I could demonstrate my “love” to someone in tormenting them (as Dostoyevsky so cleverly wrote). This is the love of a psychopath and we all know that this is not what love actually is. And so, in a rather rude way I suppose, we see that the equation of love as a verb is trivially true.
What, then, of love as feelings and actions as being non-trivially false? That is, love is not feelings and not actions as understood above (at least, not nearly in its entirety)? And, this fact is non-trivial? Yes, and here is why: from the triviality of the true aspects of feelings and actions it is clearly demonstrated that something more is needed in the meaning of the statement ‘I love you’. Unless we intend to merely express trivialities to people when we utter these words then it is not trivial to try to discover what else may be behind them. Further, it would seem that it is indeed in this sense that ordinary, honest persons intend to utter the words ‘I love you’ (that is, they are not being facetious).
So, what might this other aspect (or perhaps aspects) be? As the title may have already suggested I do want to make the suggestion that ‘I love you’ is a speech act and that a significant aspect of its meaning is tied to this fact. A speech act is an action that occurs, as one might guess, simply by speaking (much of the philosophy of speech acts comes from the philosopher J.L. Austen, but the idea occurred to me while I was brushing my teeth this morning). These sorts of acts are a species of intentional action, which is action that exhibits aboutness (intention is derived from the Latin intendo which means ‘to point at’, or ‘to aim at’, or ‘to extend towards’; intentional phenomena point or extend beyond themselves). This tells us that the activity of uttering ‘I love you’ corresponds to an intention on the part of the speaker. (If this were not the case then, ironically, the intention would have no logical intension, which is something that I find humorous). That is, the person so uttering does not merely intend to produce strange sounds with their mouth and vocal chords that happens to form a coherent sentence; rather, the person actually seems to intend three things: a locutionary act, an illocutionary act, and a perlocutionary act. The locutionary act is merely the action of saying ‘I love you’ (i.e. expressing a proposition). The illocutionary act of making the statement that ‘I love you’ (i.e. expressing a belief). And the perlocutionary act is the getting of the listener to believe that ‘I love you’. I want to argue that in the case of love the utterance ‘I love you’ is a performative utterance or speech act. That is, in virtue of the very speaking of the words the action takes place and is, further, binding.
Let me explain in perhaps clearer terms. Take, for example, the utterance ‘I promise to take out the trash’. Here we have a speech act that is all three forms of an intentional statement (locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary). Where is the promise? It is in the stating. ‘I promise to take out the trash’ brings about a new state of affairs (namely, a promise), and the promise consists simply in that stating. Now, the meaning of a promise is tied up with the intention of the speaker and hence, given that promising is a speech act, it is an intentional utterance that carries all the “baggage” of such performances. To say ‘I promise’ is to promise, with all the moral obligations (and often legal) that such an act entails. To say ‘I love you’ is no different. We can even evaluate such utterances logically given that, as locutionary acts, they have a truth value (either true or false; either I am lying or I am telling the truth). Hence, ‘I love you’ brings about, in the very uttering and entailment, a new state of affairs.
What sort of new state of affairs is this? After all, are these not merely words, spoken as so many other words are? Far from it! (It is prototypically modern to think that words are merely words and that they can signify whatever the speaker desires. “O foolish and perverse generation!”). The state of affairs that is brought into the world by such a speech act as ‘I love you’ is a state of, as Hiedeggerians might put it, being-with-the-other. I.e. two persons (and I hold that love only holds between persons and not between, say, me and my pet german shepherd), are conjoined in a new form of relating to each other that had not previously existed and, now that it does exist, is of a peculiar nature. For, being persons, any relation of one person to another is of incomprehensible importance and value given that it is a sharing in incommunicability. Persons are such that they are, by nature, incommunicable. Love, however, is such that it bridges the gap between incommunicable persons via a promise of openness, that is, a promise of standing-with and standing-in another, for the sake of the other, for the sake of their own personhood. It all, and almost always, comes down to personhood. [For more on this I recommend the most excellent work of John Crosby’s The Selfhood of the Human Person, perhaps one of the best books of the last century on the topic of personhood and certainly one of the best books I have ever read]. This is why God loves mankind and thus is able to empty Himself (κένωσις) for the sake of the world. I hope it is clear, then, through these admittedly slightly random last thoughts that the speech act ‘I love you’ is of no small importance! It should never be spoken lightly and, in the speaking, commits the speaker to quite a lot. Namely, to love. It is a promise, an acknowledgment, a statement of fact, an expression of a belief, an opening oneself to the other via a new functional relationship which is not merely physically functional but (more importantly) ontologically so. ‘I love you’ is a performative act in that it brings about a new state of affairs that is of intrinsic value, being that it is the beginning of the bridging of incommunicability between persons by the sharing in subjectivity, whereby they become more fully what they are (namely persons). Hence, it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.
The point of all this could be said to be a simple extension of a lesson one ought to have learned from their mother at around the age of kindergarten, namely “don’t talk to strangers.” In saying that “I love you” to someone there are four logical possibilities:
a. you are telling the truth (and know it) and hence understand what is involved in such a speech act.
b. you are lying (i.e. the statement ‘I love you’ was false because you never intended it to be true, in which case you are a liar).
c. you are extremely niave and perhaps irrational (in which case you are only looking at a future full of frustration and will probably wonder why).
d. both b and c.
What I have said here ought to have direct implications on such matters as divorce and infidelity, chiefly to the extent that I hope I have given at least some reason to see why saying “I never loved you, I want a divorce” is ludicrous. Love is, if nothing else, a decision to remain with the other person and this is what is meant by saying ‘I love you’. To break this is to fall into either b or c above, or both.
Perhaps the words of our Lord is a fitting example of the meaning of love as a speech act: et ecce ego vobiscum sum omnibus diebus, usque ad consummationem saeculi. Matthew 28:20. Or the words of Mary: fiat mihi, secundum verbum tuum: the ultimate speech act.